Anger is boiling in the hills surrounding Antananarivo over plans to relocate part of Madagascar’s choked capital to emerald-green farmland.
Hundreds of farmers in Ambohitrimanjaka village are facing off with the authorities over a presidential scheme that threatens to engulf a thousand hectares of rice fields.
“We will not swap our land for money and we will not accept being moved,” said Jean Desire Rakotoariamanana, who took part in protests last month. “These rice paddies provided for our ancestors.”
The unrest has been sparked by a scheme to unclog Antananarivo, a polluted city of three million people wedged in the hills of the central highlands.
If the Tana-Masoandra (Tana Sun) project comes to fruition, the area will house all of the government’s ministries, the Senate, a university, a conference centre, hotels and houses for 100 000 people.
Its backers claim that relocation to the city’s distant outskirts will cost about $600-million and create 200 000 jobs, a major economic boost in the impoverished Indian Ocean island nation.
Construction is scheduled to be completed by 2024.
The Tana-Masoandra project stems from President Andry Rajoelina’s vow on the election campaign trail last year to ease the capital’s chronic problems.
“Antananarivo was built to house between 300 000 and 500 000 people, but today there are 3.25-million,” said project manager Gerard Andriamanohisoa, who is also an adviser to Rajoelina.
According to United Nations projections, the capital’s population could double within the next 15 years, he said.
Overcrowding has bred monster traffic jams, piles of rubbish
and slums, which are routinely flooded.
Air pollution, caused by exhaust fumes and bush fires, is sky-high. On one day last month, a monitoring group found that levels of fine particulates were eight times higher than guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.
But the capital’s problems gain little sympathy in the village of Ambohitrimanjaka, which is about 12km from the capital.
And the government’s offer of relocating the farmers 700km away to the town of Bevoay, spiced by the promise of a five-for-one land swap, has gained little traction.
“We are not opposed to development and progress,” said paddy farmer Dada Leba.
“But let the president set up his project somewhere else. It is not land that we’re short of in Madagascar.”
“If they take our land away from us, we’ll have nothing to live from,” declared Dede Antsahamarina. “This new city is not intended for uneducated farmers like us.”
Violent clashes broke out between police and protesters last month over the building of a bridge designed to link the planned complex with Antananarivo. One civilian and four officers were injured before police fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.
The government has tried to ease the mood by offering about 700 families the equivalent of $20-million between them as compensation. The president has also sent envoys to try to talk the farmers around and made a direct pitch to them on the airwaves.
But rather than backing down, the farmers say they are considering filing a lawsuit against the grand plan. The battle of the rice fields, it seems, has only just begun. — AFP